Chapter Excerpt


An excerpt from the forthcoming novel Delivering the Commonwealth by Mark Schaefer

“Blown right out into vacuum. All of them.”

To this day, I can remember hearing those words as clearly as I’d first heard them.

They had cut through the fog that had been dominating my mind for— too long.

I sat at the bar, holding a—fleg, I don’t know—a beer, maybe? Just another drink in a long line of them. Another dose of my self-medicating regimen to combat the sameness of everyday life. I could usually sit here for a couple of hours after a shift and just kind of stare ahead, nursing my latest dose, tuning out the inane chatter and the pickup lines surrounding me. But this was different.

“God, that’s terrible. All of them?” asked a second voice responding to the first.

“Well, all from that one ship.”

I turned toward the voices. A middle-aged man was excitedly relaying this information to a woman of the same age. They had that look that couples on a first date have when they’re happy to have a topic to talk about that gives them enough fodder to have things to say.

Through the haze of my foggy but coming-into-focus thinking, I followed their gazes up toward the screens on the wall behind the bar. There, in the center of the image, was a destroyer—cut in half like some kind of cutaway diagram—debris and—Abe’s God—bodies radiated away from the wreckage. The ship had several additional large gaping holes through which more crew and materiel were venting into space. The chyron across the bottom of the screen read, “Fleet destroyed.”

I willed myself to focus. It was becoming clear that today was not a day I could indulge my listlessness and ennui. Something was happening. Something big. I turned to the couple.

“What’s happening?”

If they were surprised by my question, they didn’t show it. Apparently, this was news to everyone.

“Remember those unidentified objects at the edge of the Kittim system?”

“Yeah,” I said. Six months ago, ’scopes on Farmark spotted what appeared to be a fleet of vessels moving from the edge of the system. They did not appear to have dropped out of hyperspace but seemed to have crossed the great void between stars. Attempts to communicate with the fleet had been unsuccessful. Last I’d heard, the ISG was escorting a diplomatic delegation out to meet the vessels. 

“Hostiles,” the man said, showing a keen gift for understatement.

My mind was now racing. We’ve been out here all this time, cut off from the rest of human civilization without so much as a peep. And now, out of nowhere, someone—something—had arrived in our space and just annihilated our most potent defenses.

I looked around. Everyone was staring at the screens. Nobody was talking. Something had reached down out of the cold depths of interstellar space and gotten our attention. They’d certainly gotten mine.

Over the next several days, they would keep our attention, as we would see the sight of the battered hulls of the League ships as they came in from Farmark. Gaping holes where tons of materiel and thousands of crew had been flushed out into the vacuum of deep space.  The proud emblem of the League of Four Worlds scorched by fusion fire and particle beam. A catastrophe. The images of that dreadful sight flashed across every vid screen, news sheet, and datalink. 

Everywhere the citizens of the Four Worlds seemed to be walking about in dazed silence. A pall hung over our systems. We were not alone. And whoever they were, they meant business. This was not how we’d ever imagined ending our isolation.

Star shining in space with a planet in the foreground, illuminated in the upper left as a crescent

Our planets had been settled four centuries before by pioneers determined to find habitable worlds rather than waiting to terraform them. Jumping farther and farther from the inhabited regions of the galaxy, they eventually arrived at the system we call Sharon. Two habitable worlds were found in that system: New Sydney and Pherat. Only three light-years away was a second star system—Roger’s Star—with an inhabitable planet: Fairhaven. Four light-years beyond that was Kittim with another habitable world: Farmark.

Those pioneers had had limited resources, and a span of seven light-years from one settlement to the farthest was enough. It gets costly to send antimatter-fueled message drones much farther than that. Besides, we knew that eventually, the supply lines of the Commonwealth would extend out our way, and whatever we lacked would be met.

Except that those supply lines never came. We never heard from the Commonwealth again.

Those pioneers had jumped over seven hundred light-years before finding the Sharon system. They had assumed that within a few decades, Commonwealth vessels would arrive and establish trade—but they were wrong.  They did not have the resources to fuel a ship capable of jumping all the way back to Commonwealth space, not when such resources, meager as they were, were required just to maintain communication and trade among our modest little League.

And so the League of Four Worlds went about its affairs, adjusting to the idea that we were truly alone out here in the grand sweep of the Milky Way. What had happened would be a mystery. Why had we never been followed?  Our expedition had been no secret, and many such expeditions had charted new worlds, setting up the frontier before being subsumed into the expanding borders of the Commonwealth of Humanity. We weren’t due to find out what had happened for at least another three hundred years, for that would be when the first radio signals would reach us from Commonwealth space—assuming any had been sent out this way. If not, it would be another thousand years before we received a reply to the messages sent from the League four hundred years ago.

There were many schools of thought, of course. Some said that disease had likely overrun the Commonwealth. Others believed perhaps civil war had arisen. Some believed perhaps alien invaders had destroyed the Commonwealth after the pioneers had set forth. That theory was gaining popularity in the days since the Battle of Farmark.

Ever since Farmark, the more we learned, the more questions we had. The alien vessels did not appear to have hyperspace engines, but their weapons technology was highly advanced, and their hulls seemed to be able to take everything our ships could throw at them with minimal effect. How had they managed this? How could they be so far ahead of us in some things but still not have managed faster-than-light drives?

But as seemingly primitive as they were, they’d devastated the League ships and created chaos among the Four Worlds. From their position in the system, the alien ships took months to reach Farmark, and in the ensuing time, the inhabitants did everything they could to get off-world. When the aliens did get to Farmark, they destroyed what was left of the task force and bombarded the planet. The last information we got came with the fleeing League fleet and hundreds of refugee vessels. We have no idea how many survived or remain on the planet. And no idea how many took their chances in slowboats headed for Roger’s Star and Fairhaven, taking years to cross the gulf between those outposts of humanity.

League defense intelligence estimated that if the alien invaders set their sights on Roger’s Star, they would be in that system in 15 years. Now, I know fifteen years sounds like a sufficient period to defend against an invasion, but fleet commanders were not optimistic. They maintained that there was no way that the ships of the Four Worlds could advance sufficiently in technology in 15 years to repel the alien invasion. 

The Chancellor of the League was a native of Farmark. She listened to the briefings. She saw, as we all did, the disturbing images coming in from what was left of the Fleet. She knew she had but one option.

I can remember the night she announced her decision weeks later. She stood before the Great Assembly and spoke the words that now every school child of the Four Worlds knows by heart: “In our darkest hour, we must reach out to that source of light that had burned the brightest in all of human civilization. Unable to repel or reason with the invaders ourselves, we have no choice but to try to establish contact with the Commonwealth and enlist its aid.”

The Commonwealth!  I can remember how that word made my spine tingle. It was as if she had said she would enlist the help of the Roman Legions, the Allied Forces, or the Belt Rangers. It was a name of might and power from the past. We had no idea whether the Commonwealth even existed and, if it did, whether they would be willing to help. And if they were willing, whether they would be able to help. But I began to discern the true genius of her plan: whatever the Commonwealth might be able to do for us, it had already done one thing—it had given us hope. It was the first time in a while that so many of us had felt a feeling other than terror or hopelessness.

I still remember that day my fellow patron’s words pierced through my fuzzy consciousness. But I remember the night of the Chancellor’s speech even better. For it was the night that I, and thousands like me, volunteered for the expedition to go.